January 2021 Books Read

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, by Susanna Clarke (2006)

When I mentioned that I was having trouble focusing on anything long, my friend Maggie suggested this book of short stories, which turned out to be perfect for the end of December and beginning of January. I finished 2/3 of the stories in December, but since I finished it this month, it counts as the first read for 2021!

These stories were delightful forays back into the world introduced in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. They all take place in Clarke’s alternate-nineteenth century, full of the twisty magic that was part of that book. Mr. Strange even makes an appearance in one of the stories. If you liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, you’ll enjoy these stories.

These stories a great side-adventures, and feel like they would not be out of place in a collection of Grimm’s fairy tales. The stories also feature more female magicians, who were overlooked by Strange and Norrell, and I enjoyed them very much.

Two of my favorites were “John Uksglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner”, and “Mrs. Mabb.” The first story is about the king getting a comeuppance (somewhat accidentally) from a lowly charcoal burner who feels himself injured by the king’s thoughtlessness, with entertaining result.

Mrs. Mabb is about a young woman determined not to give her suitor up to the titular fairy’s attentions. It’s suitably tricky and sometimes hilarious to figure out how to defeat a fairy antagonist.

Great fun, and a great way to kick off the new year.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon (2019)

I started a conversation with my husband this way, “I haven’t read Game of Thrones, but…” and he laughed, which was fair. Since I haven’t read Martin’s tomes, it’s probably unfair to compare this to those books, except that I know those books are fantasy with political maneuvering, and this book is also high fantasy with kingdoms, political machinations, magic, and yes, dragons (two types of dragons, and the water dragons have human riders).

The most evil fire dragon, The Nameless One, is prophesied to rise again, a thousand years after he was defeated, and the disparate human kingdoms and queendoms of the world must unite to stop him before he destroys them all.

As with some high fantasy, especially fantasy heavy on plot, there is not as much about characters’ inner lives, and some characters are more well-drawn than others. There are four perspective characters whose adventures we follow: Ead at the court of Inys, Tané in her quest to become a dragon rider, Niclays as he tries to claw his way back to his home and relevance, and Lord Arteloth as he (somewhat haplessly) wanders about, connecting threads.

Of the four, Ead was my favorite and felt the most fleshed-out. We start the story with her at court as she rises in influence and seeks to hide her true nature and mission from Queen Sabran (another interesting character).

In many fantasy stories, the heroes are mostly men with women as love interests or guides, and only occasionally adventurers in their own right, so I appreciated that Shannon’s world was populated with powerful women—queens, mages, warriors, schemers, pirates, and courtiers.

As this book is quite long, there were places where it dragged a bit, and it took a while to really kick into high gear, and Niclays Roos especially was an annoying character because of his constant self-pity and selfishness. But everyone had a part to play by the end. It’s not super nuanced, but if you like fantasy with political stakes and a world-ending quest, you might enjoy this book.

Content warning: sex, some violence (though not too graphic)

★ ★ ★ ★

Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry pic

Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry (2004)

While I’ve read a few essays and some poetry by Wendell Berry, I’ve somehow missed reading any of his novels. I got Hannah Coulter for Christmas, and started in on it. As expected, the writing was beautiful and spare, and the story was very human.

Hannah Coulter narrates the story of her life, reflecting on her 70+ years and its joys and sorrows. In some ways, it was a low-stakes book, as the characters are all ordinary people living in ordinary times, but in other ways it reminded me that we are all making choices and setting the course of our lives one moment at a time, and that ordinary lives are beautiful too.

Hannah reflects on her marriages (she’s now twice-widowed) and her children, her community, and the land she’s been farming and which has supported her in its own way. They cared for the land and the land cared for them. And living a “slower” and “smaller” life has kept her more connected to who she is, tethered in a way she fears her children are not.

I look forward to reading more of Berry’s novels—if you have suggestions of which one to read next let me know!

★ ★ ★ ★

Favorite Books of 2020

I do not completely understand why people write their “best of 2020” lists in December. On the one hand, it’s the last month of the year and things are wrapping up. On the other hand, it’s still 2020, and what if you read something great right at the end of the year? It’s too late to include that amazing read from Christmas break if your “best things I read” list was published on December 15th!

So here are my ten favorite reads from this year, in no particular order (except for my favorite, which I’ve noted):

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Lovely writing, an interesting set-up (a man is sentenced to life imprisonment…in a fiver-star hotel), and the importance of human connection. Interesting to read about someone stuck in one place for an extended period of time, though he did have the advantage of many humans to interact with (and I have the advantage of a vaccine coming to restore interaction)!

Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

I don’t read a lot of memoirs, because I’m always worried they’ll be a bit self-indulgent. But this audio version, read by the author, was highly entertaining, interesting, and horrifying without going too in-depth about life in apartheid South Africa.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

A court intrigue story…in spaaace. Interesting plot and characters, and a mystery to unravel while the protagonist raced against the clock trying to find her place in an unfamiliar world. Plus the goofy naming convention of the court (everyone’s name is a number plus a noun, for example: Nine Seagrass) was highly entertaining.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, by Austin Channing Brown

Challenging and eye-opening very personal look at race and the American church.

The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien

A tough year calls for some re-reads, and escaping into Middle Earth was just what I needed this summer. A classic adventure story that sets up the larger events of The Lord of the Rings and is great fun in itself. I forgot how funny Tolkien can be and a straightforward adventure is great.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab

There were parts I liked and parts I wanted to skip past, but the “girl makes a deal with the devil” premise was great and it went in directions I didn’t expect. I found the parts from Henry’s perspective were my least favorite, but I liked Addie and her clever determination to stay alive and outwit her antagonist.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

A twisty story about an infatuated young man, a mysterious woman, and the way unchecked speculation can really go awry. It’s not as popular as Rebecca, but I thought it was just as good.

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

A lonely man, Piranesi, is almost alone in the world—a house full of statues and strange tides. But the house provides for him, so he is cared for and loved. But he starts digging into his story a bit and finds all is not as it seems. A perfect little seashell of a book.

North & South, by Elizabeth Gaskell

A re-read, but still great. Gaskell and Jane Austen definitely have some overlap, but Gaskell is a little less witty and a little more concerned with the plight of the working-class. Still great.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Yes, she’s on the list twice, because she’s that good. A 21st century book about English magicians written in a 19th century style. Excellent writing, magnificent world-building, sprawling storyline, great characters, amazing footnotes. It’s nice and long, and I love sinking into a good book, so this was basically everything I love rolled together. This was my favorite read of the year.

Podcast Madness: West, Round 3

Recap: 40 podcasts, single-elimination brackets — 1 winner will emerge!

If you’re confused, read the first post here, then come back for the results.

West, Game 1: The Road Back to You vs. Sawbones

First up this time, The Road Back to You, episode 3: Interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber (an 8 on the enneagram). This was an interesting interview with a Colorado pastor on how her strengths and weaknesses work with her vocation. It’s interesting to hear about personality typing in this way that explores deep-seated fears and weaknesses as identifiers.

Thankfully, they discussed strengths as well as weaknesses, but it’s such an interesting approach. I’m not 100% sure what my enneagram type is, and while I find this podcast interesting, it’s a little frustrating to listen to the interviews while trying to simultaneously figure out what my type is. I’d probably enjoy learning about the other types more if I had that question settled. I suspect I may be a 5, but more research is needed.

Next up, Sawbones. I listened to the episode on Fluoride. The topic reminded me of a Parks and Recreation episode in season six:

Ok, now back to the podcast. This was a live episode, which is always interesting. Sydnee and Justin talk about how dentists figured out that fluoride is good for teeth, and how water is a great delivery system. Apparently too much flouride causes teeth to turn brown?! Gross, but interesting.

Their podcast style remains informative and entertaining, and I just now made the connection that Justin McElroy is related to the other podcasting McElroy brothers (of My Brother, My Brother and Me and other podcasts). Yes, it really took me that long. I enjoy this podcast though.

Winner: Sawbones

West, Game 2: The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps vs. Truth’s Table

In the History of Philosophy our host finally got to the famous Ockham’s metaphorical razor! I learned about Ockham’s simplification of entities and I appreciated that he wanted to boil things down from a complicated system to a smaller, more manageable system.

Honestly, it’s been a while since I’ve done heavy philosophical thinking/ lifting, so this podcast requires more attention and focus. I think it would be good to have more challenging educational materials in my roster, but I’ve still got a ways to go in this bracket challenge, so I’m simplifying (sorry, Nathanael). Ockham might approve of simplifying? Ok, this is nothing like what he was doing. He probably would frown on intellectual laziness.

The ladies of Truth’s Table talked about Malcolm X in the episode I listened to, and how his legacy impacted them personally. They also talked about how good he was at diagnosing cultural problems in America, and his towering position in black American culture.

As a white American, I don’t have the same kind of connection or knowledge about Malcolm X, but I like hearing this perspective and learn more about places I know little about.

Winner: Truth’s Table

I’m Back!

Hello, any readers still left. I’ve taken a bit of a break from my podcast posts, mostly because I left the notebook that contained my notes in North Carolina after my cousin’s wedding, and I didn’t have it in me to reconstruct my thoughts (and I didn’t really want to re-listen to the podcasts and try to remember what I thought) for this round.

My mother kept the notebook for me (thanks, Mom!) and now I have it back, so I’ll jump back into the podcast brackets soon. I do kind of miss the frenzied podcast-listening, and I’m looking forward to jumping back in.

After visiting my family a couple weeks ago, I also realized that I’m not the only one who likes to turn things into a bracket competition. One of my brothers asked another one of my brothers to rank his medical school prospects bracket-style. Yes, apparently my family defaults to brackets and competition when trying to decide between things. I’m ok with that.

On a completely different note, I’ve also been thinking a lot this week, as have many, about the nature of public discourse, protests, violence, and media coverage in the wake of the Charlottesville rally and counter-protests last week. It was surreal to see my town name turn into a negative hashtag and in international headlines. I don’t have a lot of coherent things to say, but the events of last week have been stirring around in my mind, making me reevaluate where I’m spending my time and energy.

It is so easy to reduce one another to the aspects we dislike, the political views we disdain, the feelings we abhor. I don’t want to be reductive, but I also don’t want to stay silent while people who look like me lash out at other people who look different, just because they look different. A human being is a human being, and I want to remember that before every interaction, especially online, where it’s so easy to forget that there’s a living, breathing, feeling person behind every comment.

Podcast Madness: South, Round 2.2

Recap: 40 podcasts, single-elimination brackets — 1 winner will emerge!

For the thesis, read the first post here, then come back for the results.

West, Game 3: Ungeniused v. Random Trek

In Ungeniused, Stephen and Myke discuss the deep archives of Wikipedia. In this episode, “Selfie-related Deaths,” they relate tales of ways selfies can go terribly, horribly wrong. Seriously, these deaths could have been avoided (mostly) with the application of common sense and attention to one’s surroundings. Also, just like they tell you in driver’s ed classes, you’re always going to lose when you go up against a train.

Up next, Random Trek, in which host Scott and a guest watch a randomly selected episode of Star Trek and discuss it. This is kind of a different/ fun way to podcast about Star Trek. I listened to episode 127: “Ship in a Bottle,” which is a fun holodeck episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It further cements the idea that the holodeck is dangerous and should be dismantled ASAP, but it’s a fun 45 minutes of watching the crew work their way out of the situation.

The hosts also have some wise words for Captain Picard regarding password security.

Winner: Random Trek


West, Game 4: What Should I Read Next? v. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text

I listened to episode 68, “Plot Summaries are the WORST” of the What Should I Read Next? podcast. This podcast format has the host interview a guest about their reading habits, hears 3 books they love (and why) and 1 book they didn’t, and suggests a couple books they may enjoy based on their reading taste. It’s literary matchmaking!

This is a great idea, though in this case the guest’s literary tastes are very unlike my own (she enjoyed Stephen King and tear-jerker memoirs; I’ve never read Stephen King as I’m a little afraid I’d never be able to sleep again, though I hear he’s an excellent writer).

For Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, I listened to episode 2: Loneliness: The Vanishing Glass. Hearing about reading chapter 2 of Harry Potter and the Philosopher/ Sorcerer’s Stone looking for the theme of loneliness was interesting — it’s pervasive in this chapter and a great theme to tease out.

The hosts also discuss Dudley’s complaint that he “only” got 36 birthday presents, and they judged him less harshly for this than I.

I like this podcast, but I feel a little uncomfortable about mapping spiritual practices onto novels. That said, I appreciate their perspective and thoughtfulness and obvious love of the source material. It’s a fresh take on a beloved and oft-discussed series.

This was a close one, but I think I want to broaden my reading horizons….

Winner: What Should I Read Next?

Next time: East, Round 3!